It’s a truism that hardly bears repeating that technology and the infinite choices it has fostered have turned the old one-to-many communications model on its head. That’s a fact for advertising, where it’s laughable to imagine businesses being able to survive simply by broadcasting their brand messages to captive audiences. It’s a fact for pop culture, as a generation that all grew up watching “Seinfeld” and “Friends” together realizes that their children will have no such shared, universal touchstones.
And it’s an especially world-shaking fact for news and edutainment—itself a creation of the 21st-century consumption mindset, which values amusement at least as much as enlightenment. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Consider The New York Times’ recent cover story about the rise of plus-size fashion, The Wall Street Journal’s glossy luxury magazine or the wall-to-wall coverage of the shenanigans of Balloon Boy last summer on CNN.)
The old idea of broadcast news—the world according to the power networks, like ABC, NBC and the BBC—is absurd. We’ll never again have another Walter Cronkite telling us, “And that’s the way it is”; nor could (or should) we trust someone to. This isn’t just about Palin-esque distrust of the “mainstream media.” It’s about getting our attention. The combined viewership for the evening news on the three American broadcast networks has been averaging around 20 million people total—that’s roughly six percent of the U.S. population, and fewer than the 24.2 million who tuned in to the 2010 finale of “American Idol,” a number producers lament was lower than in previous years.
The Beginnings of the Mycast Movement
In the 1990s, empowered by the Internet and niche listserves that grew into bona fide communities, we began supplementing broadcast news with narrowcasting. We still listened to Dan Rather and subscribed to the local newspaper, but we began seeking out other sources of news. Early online services such as Prodigy and America Online flourished because they connected us both to the wider world and to narrower streams flowing through it.
It was still just a trickle, rather than the torrent it has since become, but information about all corners of the world began flowing into the inboxes of any user who wanted it. We could access news about virtually any city we wanted, on almost any topic we chose, slanted in a way we preferred. We could get e-mail updates from friends and family. Suddenly, the “major” network news broadcasts didn’t seem so major anymore.
The Mycast Era Takes Off
For all the ways narrowcasting reshaped our culture, it still left information—and by extension, power—in the hands of a relative few. Even though they had many more outlets and were able to hone increasingly niche focuses, a professional class of journalists, reporters, producers and editors still dictated the stories that would be told. They created the content while the rest of us consumed it. (I’m talking about the days when comments hadn’t yet become a crucial part of any news story published online—it took a few years before we all started talking back and editors started taking us seriously.) Edutainment remained a commodity.
Social media threw that model out the window. Earlier this decade, all of a sudden, anyone could publish. All you needed was a computer and a WordPress account, and you could blog on any topic you could dream up. It got even easier when you could share your thoughts on MySpace and now the all-pervasive Facebook—home to more than 500 million users and on track, says founder Mark Zuckerberg, to someday having more than 1 billion users.
Facebook is brilliant for many reasons, but key among them is that it tapped into a universal desire to control social destiny, or at least a conversation or two. Social networking liberated us from being passive listeners and turned us into active participants. We get to shape our own stories now. We mycast.
Mycasting lets us have a platform for whatever we want to throw ourselves into, loudly or softly. We get to discuss our passions, our interests and our energies. We can make ourselves heard, and we can learn from one another. Rather than rely on established experts, we can each tap into a personal universe of contacts to swap advice, news and entertainment.
Mycasting has changed “going viral” from something the CDC worried about to the holy grail for performers or marketers. This modern version of old-fashioned word-of-mouth lets everyone enjoy being part of the process (extra credit for being among the first)—and can catapult someone (or some brand) from unknown to sensation far more efficiently than the most optimized SEO ever could.
It’s impossible to quantify exactly why some things are mycast into great success. But one entrepreneur who might have some answers is 32-year-old Ben Huh, who built I Can Has Cheezburger—a user-generated blog of, yes, cat pictures—into a collection of 53 sites, all created with user-submitted (mycast) content, that brought in 16 million unique visitors in one month and will earn Huh’s company a seven-figure income this year, according to a recent glowing New York Times profile.
We Rely on Our Own Circles
It’s not just performance art and cat videos that are affected by mycasting. The phenomenon is changing the way people—smart, educated, informed people, even people who work in traditional media—are receiving breaking international news and insightful political commentary. Controversial Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson told the German magazine Der Spiegel last summer:
I read lots of articles from mainstream media, but I don’t go to mainstream media directly to read it. It comes to me, which is really quite common these days. More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters. We’re tuning out television news, we’re tuning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it’s just that it’s not like this drumbeat of bad news. It’s news that matters. I figure by the time something gets to me it’s been vetted by those I trust. So the stupid stuff that doesn’t matter is not going to get to me.
Anderson also told his interviewer that he doesn’t use the word “news” anymore and says he stays informed “via Twitter, it shows up in my inbox, it shows up in my RSS feed, through conversations. I don’t go out looking for it”—yet he heard about the deadly protests in Iran last June by Twitter, he says, before it was reported by any paper.
No wonder lists of influential tweeters to follow have become such a stable of industry (any industry) blogs and magazines. Even Roger Ebert just gave a shout-out to some of the astute people he follows, in a recent blog post about his newfound love of Twitter.
Portals Are Sinking
For all the insiders who choose to follow certain people based on such articles, millions more are stitching together their own tapestries of edutainment using the threads they already gather from sources within their own personal social universes. And just as the “like,” “share” (on Facebook) and “retweet” buttons are growing ever more prominent on blogs and articles, the importance and usefulness of Web portals—organizing frameworks like the very same AOL that helped set the mycasting revolution in motion—is dwindling rapidly.
Mycasting means people don’t have to go to a central place (be it a website, print newspaper or broadcast television show) to get their information. Rather, they can trust that what they need to know will find its way to them. The Wrap reported last week that Yahoo!, MSN and AOL—once upon a time the biggest sources of Web traffic—are seeing decreasing page views, visitors and time spent by users. They have a counterstrategy: to create original content, by hiring hundreds of staffers and thousands of freelancers to produce what will arguably be increasingly niche stories. (AOL already lets nearly anyone who wants to write an article on Seed, its content-management platform, do so for a nominal payment.) AOL, in fact, announced plans to “be the largest net hirer of journalists in the world next year.”
In other words, it’s planning to go from being a place through which broadcasts are filtered to a place where mycasts originate. And for this, the company name is apt: This is what Americans do online now.